Substance-Based Market Positioning is Needed Now More than Ever

Strategic Insights Blog | December 11, 2014

Over the past decade, college applications have steadily increased, according to annual studies published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. One factor in this increase is greater use of the common application. Another possible reason is general anxiety regarding increasing selectivity of top institutions. But as the above New York Times article points out, this anxiety is mostly based on shaky foundations; while many elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford have acceptance rates that hover around 5 and 7 percent, today's top students apply to such a wide range of these institutions that 80 percent get accepted to at least one of them, according to data from the website

The Parchment findings indicate two things: top students are more likely than ever to get into an elite college, and the pool of colleges these students will consider has expanded. As the following Slate article points out, the list of schools included in Parchment's "elite" list includes institutions outside of the ivies and top-ranked publics and liberal arts schools; institutions which would not have been considered elite in the not too distant past. These developments present great opportunity for those institutions on the edges of what we typically call "elite," or even well outside that definition. With effective planning and positioning strategies, schools can place themselves into the consideration set for the most outstanding students nationally.

Institutions have a number of options to join this class: pry outstanding students away from their top choices with generous aid packages, arbitrarily become more selective and perhaps risk reaching enrollment goals, launch branding or communications initiatives that present a more favorable impression of the school, or strengthen their competitive position with substantive strategic initiatives that will have a positive effect on the application and enrollment choices of outstanding students.

As one might guess, most institutions avoid the latter option. Engaging in substantive strategic initiatives usually involves serious change, which makes it a more difficult and complicated solution. It often requires major innovations, and the process can take years to achieve results. Hendrix College’s Odyssey program and the Colorado College Block Plan are two such examples of long-term substantive strategic initiatives that helped bolster the competitive position of both institutions.

However, reliance on superficialities such as buffing institutional reputation, new logos and brand images, while much easier to accomplish, rarely produce the desired changes in student choice behavior. In the challenging financial and demographic climate facing colleges and universities today, substance, not fluff, must drive strategy.